Nothing But a Good Man Feeling Bad: How Toomer Sings the Blues in Cane

Kevin Halleran


This paper explores how Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel Cane evokes the tradition and style of blues music. Critics have made comparisons between Cane and the blues, but they almost invariably do so to support Cane as an elegy for the southern black folk culture, which was dying out during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. For these critics, the blues are merely a metaphor in Cane. I argue that Toomer is not merely evoking the spirit of the blues as a kind of historical reference but actually mimicking the blues, in a sense crafting the entire book as one long blues verse. Structurally and aesthetically, the book employs traditional blues methods and techniques, and the result is that reading Cane offers a similar experience to listening to the blues. To compare these two experiences, I examine three important virtues of the blues that also emerge in Cane: (1) the blues are rebellious; (2) the blues are communal; (3) the blues are cathartic. Through this comparison, I attempt to demonstrate that Cane is ultimately a positive and inspirational novel, one that celebrates life by finding the beauty that makes racism, hatred, and violence bearable.

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